The Uncompahgre Valley is one of the best places in the country for nature photography. With easy access to both mountains and desert landscapes, deep canyons and lush valleys, waterfalls and badlands it’s a photographers’ paradise. Better yet, the dramatic change of seasons sparks new creative opportunities four times a year. It’s an area ripe with potential for creating beautiful images, as long as you have the drive to get out there and capture it.
Nature photography isn’t easy. Anyone who has attempted to capture an epic sunset only to return home with dark or blown out images can attest that it isn’t as simple as point-and-shoot. Fortunately, there’s never been a better time to begin the hobby. Camera gear is more accessible than ever (even cell phones are now a great option) and easier to use. There’s also a wealth of information available to help you learn the basics. Plus, there’s plenty of fun platforms to share your work with others. But where to start? Well, if you’ve ever looked out at the San Juan Mountains during sunrise, or watched the sun cast shadows cast across the adobes, and wondered how you can do this place justice in a photograph, these tips are for you.
Undoubtedly the most important aspect of taking great photos is shooting in good light. In the simplest terms, that means going out to shoot during sunrise and sunset (and roughly the hour before/after). While there are plenty of excellent photos that have been taken at any time of day, shooting during sunrise or sunset is your best bet for coming home with good results.Exceptions could be when a storm blows through in the middle of the day or when frost lingers through the morning.
After light, arguably the next most important element to photography is composition. This is one of the hardest things to learn and it can often feel overwhelming. Many photographers are eager to capture every aspect of a beautiful scene, but it’s critical to keep it simple. Make sure that you know exactly why you are taking the photo, what the subject is, and that there are very few other elements in the scene other than that point of interest. The other supporting elements should be simple and clean with the purpose of adding to, not distracting from, the main focus.
After you’ve found great light, and have a strong simple composition, the next step is camera setup. Know the equipment you are shooting with, and while beyond the scope of this article, here is a very basic place to start. Manual mode is often the best method for shooting on a tripod in very low light situations such as early morning and late evening with the aperture in the F 5.6 to F 11 range, ISO set to 100 and shutter speed set to the correct exposure based on how the image looks on the screen and the histogram. However, when shooting hand-held (or even on the tripod) you can use Aperture Priority mode to let the camera do some of the work for you and find close to the correct shutter speed, adjusting accordingly. This allows you to spend less time changing settings when subjects are moving through the scene.
A great trick for capturing landscapes is a technique known as bracketing. This involves taking three to five images (cell phones included) and afterwards using an editing program such as Lightroom to create one final image that combines the foreground and sky at the right exposure, so not too dark or too bright. One image should be taken bright, another darker, and the last right in the middle. This essentially allows your camera to capture the world more similarly to how your eyes see it.
What happens after you take a photo is equally as important as the steps leading up to it. For fine art photography (as opposed to journalistic) post-processing is a critical part of the craft. This is where you can determine the best crop, emphasize focal points, balance exposure, etc. You’ll want to download an editing program such as Adobe Lightroom, which can be used on the computer or phone. The more you shoot and edit afterwards, the better you’ll become at seeing the final edited version in your mind’s eye before you even click the shutter. Knowing what’s possible and how the final result will look is key to how you’ll shoot in the field.
Like so many things in life, it’s important to have the right tool for the job. Good quality camera gear will have a direct relationship with the quality of images you produce. While camera bodies vary widely, a mid-range, wide angle and telephoto lens are ideal for nature photography. If this hobby is your passion, shoot with the best gear you can afford. But keep in mind that learning the art and technique of photography, along with putting in the hard work of finding beautiful locations, is far more important than the equipment you are using. These days, many incredible images are taken on a cell phone.
At the end of the day, make sure that you take everyone’s ideas (including these) as a suggestion rather than a hard and fast rule. Always feel free to do your own thing and never let yourself be put in a box. Listen to others’ ideas, mesh everything you hear together, then make it your own — allowing you to have your own unique creative vision. The same goes with the “rules or principles” of photography that have been around for years. This is art after all.